Cat Ba Island travel guide - Rusty Compass

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Cat Ba Island
travel guide

Cat Ba Island Introduction

| 02 Oct 2018
Last updated 02 Oct 2018

Cat Ba Island is the largest island in World Heritage listed Halong Bay and the only island that hosts a substantial settlement. Cat Ba's spectacular National Park and its unique access to Halong Bay make it one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam. But it still sees few visitors compared with the main gateways to the bay in Quang Ninh province.

The fishing community at Cat Ba town has been around for centuries. It's still well worth exploring. In recent decades the tourism industry has started to transform the island. Cat Ba has become a summer favourite with domestic tourists and a year-round option for backpackers and travellers with an appetite for adventure and time to explore less visited parts.

Cat Ba is ramping up efforts to become a rival gateway to Halong Bay. It's set to change dramatically. New roads now place it an easy 4 hour journey from Hanoi (see below), including a boat trip - and the island offers something more interesting than the overdeveloped Halong Bay city in Quang Ninh.

The declaration of Cat Ba Island's national park in 1986, recognised the park’s unique natural beauty and ecological value. It marked the humble beginnings of a tourist industry that looks set to grow exponentially in the coming years. The National Park occupies just under half the island's 260sq km land mass.

In the past, if you were taking a cruise of Halong Bay, it would  leave from Quang Ninh province to the at Bai Chay, Tuan Chau and Hon Gai. The vast majority still do.

Few travellers experience Halong Bay from Cat Ba and Haiphong, at the southern end of the bay - known as Lan Ha Bay.

Cat Ba is a good place for a less touristy (except during summer holidays) experience of the bay's beautiful limestone islets. There are fewer boats operating from Cat Ba to Lan Ha Bay and they tend to target budget and adventure travellers.

Cat Ba is a beautiful place too - it’s easy to spend a couple of days on the island. It’s worth noting that the beaches and resorts are not the island’s strong points.

There are big plans in the pipeline for Cat Ba. And its delightful mellow ways might fall victim to the mass tourism virus that has harmed other destinations in Vietnam.

For now though, Cat Ba is a good fit for those with some extra time and an interest in exploring the island and its National Park. Rock climbing and other adventurous activities are offered. The island's also good for cycling and motorcycle exploration.

Cat Ba fishing port
Photo: Mark Bowyer Cat Ba fishing port
Kayaking, Lan Ha Bay off Cat Ba Island
Photo: Mark Bowyer Kayaking, Lan Ha Bay off Cat Ba Island 

Cat Ba Island Need to Know

Essential travel information about Cat Ba Island


Weather on Cat Ba Island - best time to travel

Cat Ba experiences four seasons like all of Vietnam’s north. Summer months (June - August) are hot and humid. The summer holidays also see a surge in domestic tourist arrivals. Things are cooler in spring (March - May) and autumn (September - November). The island can be hit by typhoons and severe weather between August and October. Winters (December - February) are cold and grey - but have their own beauty. You’ll need to have some proper warmth with you when travelling in winter.

Autumn and spring are the best times to visit. Remember the crowds of domestic tourists hit during summer. Weekends can also be busier.


Cat Ba Island - getting there and away

Getting to Cat Ba from Hanoi

Inexpensive bus services (around 15USD one way in October 2018) operate between Hanoi and Cat Ba. The journey is around 4 hours, the roads and the buses we looked at are good.

Here are 2 companies we know operating several services a day between Hanoi and Cat Ba.

Cat Be Express

Hoang Long Bus Company

Train buffs might want to check out a slower option travelling to Haiphong by rail (4 - 5 hours) and then on to Cat Ba on the fast (but ancient) hydrofoil. The boat from Haiphong takes 45 mins. Spend a night in Haiphong on the way for a look at an interesting Vietnamese city that sees few tourists. You can see our Haiphong travel guide here.

It’s also possible to fly in to Haiphong’s Cat Bi airport from major Vietnamese cities like Saigon, and head straight to the port (check times) and on to Cat Ba. Hydrofoil services operate 3 times per day.

The ancient hydrofoils operating the 45 minute Haiphong - Cat Ba route.
Photo: Mark Bowyer The ancient hydrofoils operating the 45 minute Haiphong - Cat Ba route.


Cat Ba Island - getting around

Cat Ba's great for exploring by motorbike. Motorbikes can be rented for around US$8 per day. There's nice cycling to be had close by Cat Ba town too. The island is hilly though, limiting more extensive cycling to the very fit. The main roads around the island are mostly in good condition and don't see much traffic. If you’re planning on jumping on a motorbike, make sure your insurance is in order (most companies don’t cover unlicensed motorcycling).

Car hire and motorbike taxis can also be arranged in Cat Ba town. Motorbike taxis (xe om) can be a good way to explore the island since the riders usually know the best spots. Be sure to clearly agree your plans and price in advance.


Cat Ba Island - health and safety

Cat Ba has a reputation for scamming but we sense things are improving. Still - use caution when booking services and dealing with xe om drivers.

Cat Ba's medical facilities are basic. There is a larger hospital in Haiphong. If possible and on doctors advice, try and have medical treatment in Hanoi.


Cat Ba Island - info about wifi, mobile and ATMs

Free wifi is widely available in the restaurants and hotels on the main tourist strip in Cat Ba town. Mobile phone services cover town and some parts of the island. Mobile phone cards are widely available.

There are ATMs on the main harbour strip. As Cat Ba is remote, keep some extra cash in a safe place for the unlikely but occasional failure of the ATM network.  Credit cards are not widely accepted.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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